Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel

  • Published in Travel

Scotland's most outstanding Gothic church is famed internationally for its ornate stonework and mysterious symbolism, which has been linked with the Knights Templar, the Freemasons and the Holy Grail.

Rosslyn Chapel in 1693, engraving by John SlezerNearby Roslin Castle in the small village of Roslin, on the outskirts of Scotland's capital Edinburgh, lies one of Scotland's most important historic buildings and tourist destinations.

Rosslyn Chapel is a 15th-century church famous for its decorative art and aura of mystery. The building has Christian and pagan statues which have been the subject of countless theories and have been frequently linked with the Knights Templar, the Masons and the Holy Grail.

Originally named the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, this 15th-century church is one of Scotland's most atypical medieval structures.

The original building was to be a larger cruciform church, but after the death of its benefactor Sir William St Clair in 1484 works were stopped and the chapel was left in the current asymmetrical shape.

Rosslyn Chapel still functions as a place of worship for the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion. Services are held regularly in the chapel for a local congregation of about 120. Since the chapel is a working church, sometimes Rosslyn Chapel is closed for short periods to hold special services such as funerals or weddings.

Rosslyn Chapel is stll a working church

Rosslyn chapel was the place of worship of the St Clair family until it fell in disuse during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. Restoration works were carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and by 1862 the chapel became once more a working church.

The building recently underwent a £13 million conservation and site improvement works to provide improved visitor facilities and secure the chapel's future as one of Scotland's most important historic sites.

The mysteries surrounding the chapel

Like many medieval churches, Rosslyn Chapel is adorned with some figures whose meaning has been lost to time.

Since the 1980's the chapel's mysterious figures have been the subject of speculation regarding possible connections to the Knights Templar, Freemasonry and the Holy Grail.

Those theories are based on some late carvings in the chapel reflecting Masonic imagery as well as alleged connections of Sir William St Clair with the Knights Templar.

Many books and hypotheses involving Rosslyn Chapel, often involving more fiction than fact, have been published over the past 30 years. The most popular of all being Dan Brown's 2003 best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Scenes of The Da Vinci Code movie were filmed at Rosslyn Chapel in 2005.

After The Da Vinci Code brought Rosslyn Chapel to a global audience, the number of international visitors have risen to about 70,000 visitors per year, making the chapel one of the most popular tourist destinations in Scotland.

Burial place of the St Clair family

The Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew was founded on St. Matthew's Day in 1446 by Sir William St Clair, also written Sinclair, an Earl from the Orkney islands which was one of the most important knights in the Kingdom of Scotland.

Inside the chapel there are a series of shields displaying the letters: W L S F Y C Y Z O G M iii 1L which stand for William Lord Sinclair Fundit Yis College Ye Zeir Of God MCCCCL.

Sir William left an endowment to pay for the upkeep of the priests and choristers of the chapel, who had to pray and celebrate Holy Mass in perpetuity for the souls of the benefactor Sir William and the St Clair family. Ever since, Rosslyn Chapel has been the family church and burial place for several generations of the Sinclairs.

The stone carvings of Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel is famous for its elaborate artwork and stone carvings. As one would expect in a church, passages from the Bible are the main theme and include carvings of the Crucifixion; the Prodigal son; Abraham and his son; Issac on the altar with the ram; Samson destroying the Philistines; David killing the lion; and even a carving of the fallen angel lucifer.

An angel playing the bagpipe, thought to be one of the earliest depictions of the instrumentOther carvings in the chapel depict scenes of daily life, like a farmers' wife rescuing a goose from the jaws of a fox, a knight on horseback, and characters from all walks of life being called by Death.

The Green Men of Rosslyn ChapelMany carvings in the chapel represent pagan idols or cult activities such as the Green Men, a pre-Christian and Celtic symbol of fertility. Rosslyn Chapel has over 100 carvings of Green Men faces in all areas of the building.

Like many medieval churches Rosslyn Chapel is also adorned with different symbols, some of which are still known to us, and others whose meaning has been lost to time and are now subject of countless theories.

The many fleur-de-lis designs carved throughout the Chapel are known to represent the Virgin Mary and Royalty.

The seashells carved next to a figure of Sir William St Clair are the symbol of St James of Compostella, where the St Clair went on a pilgrimage carrying King Robert the Bruce's heart.

The carvings known as The Musical Boxes are a sequence of 213 cubes protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is thought those cubes were musical boxes, but is not known the meaning of the patterns carved on them.

Surrounding a window inside the Chapel are carvings of what many believe to be maize, an exotic plant which originates from America. Considering the carvings were made almost half a century before Columbus' voyages, the presence of that plant in the building has added even more mystery over the artwork of the chapel.

The Apprentice  Pillar is the most elaborately decorated pillar in the Chapel.The Apprentice Pillar

The most elaborately decorated pillar in the Chapel, the Apprentice Pillar gets its name from a legend involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice.

According to legend, the master mason travelled abroad to learn about a complicated design for the column. When upon his return he found that his talented apprentice had already completed the column by himself, the master mason had a fit of jealous anger and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. As punishment for his crime, the master mason's face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice's pillar.

The base of the Apprentice Pillar features eight dragons from whose mouths emerge a Tree of Life that winds itself around the pillar. As for the apprentice himself, his head with a scar on his left temple was carved opposite the organ loft.

Roslin Castle and Roslin Glen Country Park

Rosslyn Chapel is set in the idyllic Roslin Glen Country Park, a great place for a walk or a picnic.

Roslin CastleOnly a few hundred metres from the Chapel is Roslin Castle, a medieval fortress built by the St Clair family in the 14th century. Well-signed footpaths go across the wooded Roslin Glen, linking the chapel and the castle on a pleasant walk.

The castle was built near the site of the Battle of Roslin, where the Scots defeated the English in 1303. The fortress was also used as one of Scotland's most important scriptoriums until its structure was severely damaged during the Anglo-Scottish War of the Rough Wooing in 1544.

The castle remained partially in ruins ever since, although most of it was rebuilt in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The last major renovation works were carried out in the 1980s. The castle is currently leased as holiday accommodation.

Do you want to know more?
Official website: history, conservation, bookings and church services
The official site for visiting the region of Midlothian, home of Rosslyn Chapel

How to get there:

By Bus: Bus number 15 comes from the centre of Edinburgh to Roslin Village. Rosslyn Chapel is a 2 minute walk along Chapel Loan. For up to date bus times, visit

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